Monday, November 25, 2013

Hope and Solace in Times of Grief

Albert N. Martin, Grieving, Hope, and Solace: When a Loved One Dies in Christ. Adelphi, Md: Cruciform Press, 2011. Paperback.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Shortly after leaving my first pastorate, our former congregation called a new pastor. The day before his examination at Presbytery, his wife died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving behind four children ranging from ages 4-13. As our friends and this man reeled from this devastating news, we commended Al Martin’s Grieving, Hope, and Solace to them. After the elders purchased this book for every family in the congregation, the Spirit of God used it mightily to comfort his people in Christ. We trust that the Lord will continue to bless it to enable this family and congregation to pick up the pieces and to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

The author and the circumstances surrounding the book make it self-commendable. Al Martin is one of the greatest preachers of our time. The material is based on a series of sermons that he preached following the death of his wife of 42 years. In it he wrestles with how to glorify God in grief.

The most valuable feature of Grieving, Hope, and Solace, is that it leads people through careful step-by-step reflections on Scripture. Among many other things, Martin walks us by the hand through his own meditations regarding what is true for saints who have died, the joy of Christ in heaven over them, and how Scriptures direct us to subdue our emotions through faith in God’s promises and obedience to his commands. He is pastorally sensitive while remaining biblically faithful.

This work will benefit believers and non-believers alike. Martin clearly and persuasively presents the glory of Jesus Christ as the only true source of consolation in life and in death. His experience makes this far removed from a cold exhortation. The principles that he lays down will help believers far beyond the narrow application of losing a spouse. We have given this book to non-believers as an evangelistic tool and it has greatly helped our family in the pain of separation from friends and family as a result of moving across the country. I pray fervently that it would be read as widely as possible and that churches will have piles of copies on hand to give to grieving people. This work will always be timely and contemporary.

The preceding review was first published in Banner of Truth.

Puritans on Pastoring

Joel R. Beeke and Terry D. Slachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the Puritans. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013. 211 pp. Paperback. $15.00.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

This book offers encouragement both to pastors and to Christians in general. This reviewer expected the authors to present lessons for pastors derived from Puritan works on pastoral theology. While they do draw from such sources, they draw upon their broad knowledge of Puritan writings in general to treat various aspects of the pastoral ministry and Christian living. The authors introduce each chapter with reference to contemporary issues that affect ministers and churches, such as ministerial burnout, discouragement, feeling irrelevant to contemporary culture, and facing unrealistic expectations from the church. This helps readers adapt the wisdom of Puritan ministers to the present generation.

Some of the most helpful features of this book include submitting to God’s will in the trials and blessings of the ministry, the value of keeping spiritual journals, developing ministerial fellowship, freeing ministers to follow their calling as Scripture defines it, and the urgency and importance of the preaching of the Word. The material on journaling struck this reviewer as particularly helpful. I have often found journaling time consuming and unfruitful. However, the Puritans recommended narrowing the focus of journaling to topics such as remarkable providences, recording answered prayers, the comforts that the Lord brings to meet every trial, and similar topics. This is potentially more fruitful than collecting a record of random spiritual experiences that believers are unlikely to consult again.

Most of the trials that ministers face are the same kind of trials that every Christian faces, differing in degree only. I read the chapter on submitting to God’s will while in a hospital waiting room mourning the death of a daughter and waiting for my wife to undergo surgery. The Lord ministered to my soul greatly not only as a minister, but as a Christian in need of communion with God. All believers who prayerfully read this book will simultaneously understand better the trials of their pastors and gain wisdom and encouragement for their own souls.

The preceding review was first published in Banner of Truth.

The Best Method of Preaching

Petrus van Mastricht, The Best Method of Preaching. Trans. Todd Rester. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013. 82pp. Paperback. $10.00.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw
Jonathan Edwards stated that Peter van Mastricht’s Theoretico-Practica Theologia was the best book that he had read apart from the Bible (1). Mastricht wrote his theology in order to teach men how to preach better. Each chapter of this massive work includes an exegetical section, a theological section, a polemical section (refuting error), and a practical section. The Best Method of Preaching began as a preface to Mastricht’s larger theological work. Until now, most of Mastricht’s writing was buried in Latin. Todd Rester’s in-process translation of Mastricht’s work will be one of the most important contributions to Reformed churches in our time. The Best Method of Preaching is designed to whet reader’s appetites for more (19).

Mastricht believed that most books on preaching were too long (26). He thought that long tedious books on preaching resulted in long tedious sermons. Rester conveniently divides Mastricht’s counsel on preaching into ten brief chapters. The book expands the four things that Mastricht believed were necessary in preaching: invention, arrangement, elaboration, and delivery (29). Each chapter is filled with good sense, pithy statements, and illustrations of how to construct the parts of a sermon using Colossians 3:1 as a template. Mastricht’s primary goals were to make sermons easy to remember and to promote the practice of piety. The brevity of the book will make it a reference tool to keep on a pastor’s desk for weekly sermon preparation.

It is worth knowing Latin if only to read Mastricht and his mentor, Johannes Hoornbeeck. Lord willing, Mastricht will soon be available in English. I pray that this book on preaching would leave readers hooked and longing for more.

The preceding review was first published in The Banner of Truth.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Role of the Mosaic Covenant

Michael Brown, Christ and the Condition: The Covenant Theology of Samuel Petto (1624-1711) (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 139pp.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

The role of the Mosaic covenant in Reformed covenant theology has always been a difficult question. Members of the Westminster Assembly, such as Edmund Calamy and Samuel Bolton, even disagreed over how to classify the range of views among Reformed ministers. Michael Brown’s study on Samuel Petto contributes to the scholarly exploration of this question in the context of seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy. Brown is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, California. He argues that Petto’s view of the Mosaic covenant as a republication of the covenant of works was designed to safeguard the gospel. Although this work is generally well-researched, it lacks precision in discerning the range of seventeenth-century views of the Mosaic covenant. This reviewer hopes to clarify this subject by interacting with Brown’s treatment.

Petto was a Congregationalist and fifth Monarchist (15-18). Brown’s chapters set forth in order Petto’s life and context, his covenant theology in general, Reformed orthodox views of the Mosaic covenant, Petto’s treatment of the Mosaic covenant, and the implications of his teaching for the doctrine of justification. Brown’s title is well-chosen since Petto’s primary contention was that Chris fulfilled all of the conditions of the covenant of grace, making it entirely unconditional to believers. Petto rejected the distinction between the covenant of grace and the covenant of redemption and treated them as eternal and temporal aspects of the covenant of grace (27-33). He believed that this secured the unconditional character of the covenant of grace (111-115).

Petto’s view of the Mosaic covenant is the centerpiece of his book on the covenants. This review will address Brown’s historiography as well as the limitations of his assessment of Petto’s work.

The book is characterized by some historiographical problems. Brown cites Richard Muller as arguing that the Reformed orthodox were “the legitimate and faithful heirs of Calvin” (5). Yet Muller notes, “Calvin’s theology is referenced, not as a norm to be invoked for the examination of the later Reformed tradition, but as part of an antecedent complex of earlier Reformed formulations lying in the background of many aspects of the latter Reformed positions” (Richard A. Muller, “Diversity in the Reformed Tradition,” Michael A.G. Haykin and Mark Jones, eds., Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth Century Reformed Orthodoxy, Gottingen, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecth, 2011, 12). Moreover, he defines Puritanism almost exclusively in terms of ecclesiology and makes no mention of piety or holiness a central theme (9). However, in spite of the ambiguity surrounding the term, scholars almost universally recognize personal piety as a central element of Puritanism.

In addition, he treats an “eschatological goal” in the covenant of works as the standard Reformed position (36). However, he does not recognize the significant diversity among the Reformed orthodox regarding whether Adam’s reward was heavenly or earthly life (see Mark Herzer, “Adam’s Reward: Heaven or Earth?,” Drawn into Controversie, 162-182). Later he mentions Petto’s rejection of “monocovenantalist schemas” (39). This imports contemporary debates into historical theology. Brown gives no evidence that this terminology belonged to the seventeenth-century nor does he indicate who held such views. The Reformed orthodox would not have recognized this term in their debates.

At least two other items are worth noting. He attributes Petto’s citation of “Dr. C” potentially to Edmund Calamy, but in the context of Petto’s work, the reference is very likely to John Cameron’s book on the covenants (13, fn13). The reason for this is that Petto’s on the Mosaic covenant were most likely a variation of Cameron’s assertion that the Mosaic covenant was a “subservient” covenant that was neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace. Additionally, he mentions that Petto’s rejection of a distinct covenant of redemption fits better with the Westminster Confession than with the Savoy Declaration (30). However, even Savoy does not use the term “covenant of redemption.” It refers only to a covenant between the Father and the Son (Savoy 8.1). Petto’s position still fits this language just as easily as those who distinguished the covenants of redemption and of grace. Conversely, though the terms describing the covenant of redemption were new at the time of the Westminster Assembly, there is no tension between this idea and Westminster’s covenant theology.

This lack of precision with respect to the relevant issues in seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy affects Brown’s treatment of the Mosaic covenant. While he succeeds in establishing the general thesis of his book, the manner in which he describes Petto’s view of the Mosaic covenant in relation to the options available at the time is problematic.

To begin with, he notes that Petto “embraced both the old and new covenants, and qualified them as one covenant of grace . . .” (42). Yet this is directly opposed to Petto’s argument in chapters six and seven of his work. Petto argued that the “old covenant” was not the covenant of grace, but that it was the “legal condition” of the covenant of grace as it was the covenant of works published for Christ to fulfill (Samuel Petto, The Difference Between the Old and New Covenant, London, 1674, 112, 124, 127, 141, 186). Petto taught that the Old Testament saints were saved through the “one covenant of grace,” but he denied emphatically that the old covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace.

Brown’s treatment of John Owen is important, since Owen and Petto held similar views and Owen wrote a preface to Petto’s work. Brown asserts, “[Owen] saw it as a covenant of works, distinct from yet subservient to the covenant of grace” (44). He later distinguishes Owen’s view from Bolton (and Cameron), who regarded the Mosaic covenant as neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace (79). However, Mark Jones has demonstrated that Owen’s position has many commonalities with Cameron’s, even though he illustrates the nuanced differences between them (Jones, “The ‘Old’ Covenant,” Drawn into Controversie, 199-202). Even though Owen believed that the substance of the covenant of works was republished at Sinai, he explicitly called Sinai “a superadded covenant” that was essentially neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace (Owen, Works, XXIII, 70, 77-78. Goold edition. See Petto, The Difference, 162). This is probably the most serious criticism of Brown’s work, since it shifts the entire paradigm of understanding Owen and Petto’s covenant theology.

Regarding Petto’s view of the Mosaic covenant, Brown wrote, “Petto believed Sinai to be a republication of the covenant of works” (87). This statement is not very precise. Petto wrote, “In general it was a covenant of works to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ, but not so as to Israel” (Petto, The Difference, 112). His point is that at Sinai, the covenant of works was republished to Israel declaratively rather than convenantally (Jones, “The ‘Old’ Covenant,” 200). In other words, it was not the covenant of works as originally given to Adam, but it was the covenant of works as given to Christ as the second Adam (Petto, The Difference, 17). This is why Owen argued that Sinai contained the substance of the covenant of works without being the covenant of works stated simply. Brown has not adequately discerned the nuances of this position, which is admittedly subtle. He qualifies these statements later by noting that the law was not a covenant of works for Israel (95-96, 103), but the bald statement that the law was a republished covenant of works was one that neither Petto nor Owen was willing to make.

On a minor note, he misunderstands slightly Petto’s view on “conditional promises (41, 111-115). Petto believed that the gospel consists of unconditional promises to believers and that those promises which appeared to be conditional were merely rhetorical devices that were designed to incite faith (Petto, The Difference Between the Old and New Covenant, 312ff). Brown does not bring out Petto’s emphasis strongly enough. When Petto calls faith, repentance, and obedience conditions “improperly” speaking, he means that they are inappropriately called conditions, since they are merely duties within the covenant of grace (The Difference, 208).

The proper construction of Petto’s covenant theology is as follows: The Sinai covenant was not the covenant of works as God gave it to Adam. Neither was it an administration of the covenant of grace to Israel. Nor was it a mixed covenant that was partly a covenant of works and partly a covenant of grace. Instead, it was a covenant of works for Christ in fulfilling the “legal condition” of the covenant of grace. As such, it was “an addition or appendix to that with Abraham” (Petto, The Difference, 162). Israel had no relation either to the covenant of works or to the covenant of grace by virtue of the Mosaic covenant. This covenant brought them temporal blessings in the land of Canaan only (as Brown notices, 96). Brown gives the impression that Petto taught that the Mosaic covenant was not an administration of the covenant of grace, but that it was a republication of the covenant of works. Yet strictly speaking, he believed that it was neither.

Seventeenth-century debates over the Mosaic covenant differ widely from modern ones. Some believed that he Mosaic covenant was the covenant of grace. Most believed that it was the covenant of grace with a republication of the covenant of works as a subordinate element. A small number taught that it was neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace, but that it contained elements of them both. Few, if any, believed that the Mosaic covenant was merely the covenant of works. Brown’s work draws necessary attention to a virtually forgotten thinker in the seventeenth-century, but the conclusions of this work need to be sharpened in order to better contribute to contemporary discussions.


This review appeared first in the Mid-America Journal of Theology for 2012.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Living What You Know

Starr Meade, Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Heidelberg Catechism. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013. 255pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Sinclair Ferguson relates a story in which a woman told him that she listened to a particular sermon of his several times and that she was getting more out of it each time. Curious, he listened to the sermon himself. After listening to the sermon, he concluded that if this woman had been catechized, then she would likely have retained the entire sermon after the first or second listening.

Catechizing is one of the most important discipleship tools available both to family and church. Through a question and answer method, children and families learn how to think through the truths of Scripture and in an organized way. Yet catechizing is one of the most neglected areas of discipleship today. People who are raised on a steady diet of prayer, family worship, private Bible reading, public worship, and a Reformed catechism will better know what they believe, why they believe it, and how to walk with God in every area of life.

Yet catechizing can be difficult. To offset this difficulty, Starr Meade has prepared a year’s worth of studies to help families learn and discuss the Heidelberg Catechism. This volume is similar to her earlier acclaimed work on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Each section of the book begins by citing the full text of the relevant catechism questions for that week. She provides a brief devotional segment for each day of the week. This gives families a useful starting point to discuss the doctrines that they are memorizing and meditating upon in the catechism. She concludes each devotional segment with family Scripture readings. For the most part, she has followed the original division of the catechism into 52 Lord’s Days but has divided a few of the longer sections into two parts in order to promote ease of use.

This is a wonderful resource to help families grow in their knowledge of the Bible, in their ability to digest the theology of Scripture, in their personal godliness, and in their love to Christ. Starr Meade’s introduction provides a fitting conclusion for this review:

A catechism cannot and should not replace Scripture. But it is an invaluable aid in summarizing and remembering the most important teaching of Scripture. Learning a catechism doesn’t guarantee a child’s conversion. Knowing truth well is not the same as responding to truth and living in the light of it. But our children cannot respond to truth they don’t know. They can’t live in the light of truth with which they are unfamiliar. Helping children to learn well the truth of Scripture is where we begin. Knowing a good catechism is one of the best beginnings we can provide for our children (9).

This review first appeared in New Horizons, Oct. 2013